'The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or rather there is one in the hands of every major character." Historian Christopher Clark's sums up his enthralling dissection of the complexity of the causes of the first World War ("The Sleepwalkers") with an analogy that strikingly echoes that scene in the street in Sarajevo 100 years ago today so widely represented in dramatic drawings in the newspapers the world over: Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip with smoking gun in hand assassinates the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. And starts the first World War, or so the more simplistic traditional narratives will have it.
Clark's important recasting of the narrative was an attempt to break from the easy, and perhaps natural, temptation to blame, to try to find a guilty party – usually just Imperial Germany and its blank cheque to Austria to take on the Serbs – or, just as importantly for politicians, the crafting of a consensus around the idea that this, or any specific war, is a "just war". All the easier then, even generations later, to enlist others in "similar" projects "in defence of small nations", against tyranny and genocide, or, come to that, "to destroy weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands".
Sometimes, indeed, there is a war of good guys and bad guys, a “just war”. But to understand and to learn from the political dynamics that produce war requires us to ask different questions, and particularly so in the case of the first World War.
Was there in the particular cocktail of empires on the rise and in decline, of febrile nationalisms, of great power rivalry in an international system in flux, and in the secret treaty alliances that so quickly drew so many bystanders into the conflict within 37 days of Sarajevo, a potentially explosive scenario that we could see repeated catastrophically again today? Triggered by a relatively minor incident, snowballing into regional and then global war?
Some pessimists – realists? – would say that describes the potential of the unfolding microconflicts in the South China Sea. China flexing its muscles over disputed islands, American military guarantees, nationalism on the rise in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, India ... and none of the multilateral instruments, like the European Union itself, to manage and defuse conflict.
Above all we must remember and commemorate the sacrifice the Great War and all its savgery, the first war in which industrial scale killing saw 8.5 million soldiers and seven million civilians from both sides die, 20 million severely wounded. We owe it to them also to learn.